UK Football

Kentucky's Stoops has deftly blended Joker's recruits with his own

In the real world, they call it a blended family: trying to take kids from a first marriage and mix them with kids from a second marriage.

In college football, they simply call it a coaching change.

Second-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is having his first go-round as a head coach at this blending of families, mixing players from the former staff with his own signees, highly touted recruited players.

It's a delicate dance to begin with, but Kentucky has found it can end with everyone — even a left-footed head coach — dancing in the locker room after a big win.

Stoops said that first, delicate dance was the most important move he's had to make as a coach.

"Just because you say 'Coach' and walk in the door, they're not going to trust you and respect you right away," Stoops said Thursday before his Kentucky team heads to Louisiana State on Saturday night.

"We didn't really know them. So I think that's a big part of growing together: just getting to know each other."

For many of the holdovers, the guys who huddled together and shed tears when Coach Joker Phillips and his staff were dismissed, it was a scary process.

Players like D.J. Warren wondered where he'd fit in as a fullback in an Air Raid.

"I'm not even going to lie, I was extremely nervous," Warren said. "But when they came here, they told me straight up, 'You're going to have a chance.'"

As Stoops and his staff brought in players with multiple stars next to their names by various recruiting services, Phillips' players would look online and read up.

They'd ponder where they'd fit in or if they'd fit in.

Stoops told them not to worry. They were his guys.

"When these new recruiting classes came in, he's constantly reminding us ... saying 'You are my guys. Everyone here is my guys,'" offensive lineman Max Godby said.

"That just shows how much Coach Stoops loves this program and loves us. It gives us the opportunity to welcome these guys in as brothers while competing with them also."

To guys like Godby, a fifth-year senior that his teammates affectionately call "Pops," Stoops' actions and words were huge.

"We're all Coach Stoops' guys and that's why I love Coach Stoops to death," Godby said. "He's a man I'd run through a burning house with. That's how much respect I have for the man."

Go two deep on Kentucky's depth chart and there are a dozen reasons that Stoops melded the two groups. Many of Phillips' former recruits are big-play guys for the Cats — players like quarterback Patrick Towles and four of the five starters on the offensive line.

Half of UK's defensive line starters are holdover players — defensive end Bud Dupree and Mike Douglas. And much of the Cats' secondary — Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller, J.D. Harmon, Ashely Lowery.

All of them were Phillips guys developed further and brought along by Stoops' staff.

"The guys that were here before we came, those are our leaders," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "You talk about Darrian Miller, Jordan Swindle. You talk about Bud Dupree. Those guys."

Maybe that blending of families didn't show in the wins and losses last season, but Brown said it showed in the Cats' locker room.

"He stands in front of this group and says, 'There is no my guys. You're all Kentucky Wildcats. You're my guys. Whether I recruited you or I didn't recruit you, you're my guys," Brown recalled.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has seen Stoops do this at previous coaching stops.

"It's not 'my guys' and 'the old guys,'" Eliot explained. "As soon as he walks on campus, 'You're my guy.' Everybody's a part of the program, no matter who recruited you or how long you've been here."

Much of it is just Stoops' personality, Brown said.

"He's sincere," the offensive coordinator said. "That probably doesn't get talked about enough, but he's a really sincere individual. ... When he says 'You're my guy,' that's what he means."

Players don't always like what Stoops says to them, but they know he means it, Towles said.

The head coach sets a high bar for the new players and the players recruited by previous staffs.

"It's hard to do a whole change to a program like he had to do," Towles said. "He came upon a program that was kind of in — I don't want to say in ruin, but not really as good as where me as a fan and this state wanted it to be.

"But he's done — obviously, the proof's in the pudding — a phenomenal job of getting this program back on track. And we are."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader